Saints’ Pay­ton ex­pect­ing closer game

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - NFL -

NEW OR­LEANS — Saints coach Sean Pay­ton dis­misses the premise that the Ea­gles could de­rive ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion from the wide­spread per­cep­tion that New Or­leans ran up the score on them when they met in Novem­ber.

“My ques­tion would be: We’re all play­ing hard in these di­vi­sional play­off games, right?” Pay­ton be­gan, re­fer­ring to Sun­day’s re­match in the di­vi­sional round of the NFC play­offs. “Are you go­ing to play harder” be­cause of a per­ceived slight?

Still, Pay­ton ex­pects a more com­pet­i­tive af­fair than the Saints’ 48-7 blowout of the Ea­gles on Nov. 18, which gave Philadel­phia the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­com­ing the first reign­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion to lose by that wide a mar­gin in the fol­low­ing reg­u­lar sea­son.

The Ea­gles (10-7) ap­peared to be sink­ing fast when their loss in New Or­leans dropped them to 4-6. But they’ve ral­lied to win six of seven since, in­clud­ing a road vic­tory against the Los An­ge­les Rams that helped New Or­leans (13-3) cap­ture the con­fer­ence’s top seed.

“They’ve kind of been in a play­off role re­ally go­ing back to those games, need­ing to win to get in,” Pay­ton noted. “So it’s im­pres­sive.”

Now the Ea­gles, who opened as 10-point un­der­dogs this week, can ruin the Saints’ Su­per Bowl dreams with a sec­ond straight road upset.

“We’re look­ing for­ward to it,” Ea­gles tight end Zach Ertz said. “We’re a com­pletely dif­fer­ent team than we were seven weeks ago. I don’t think the team that showed up on that Sun­day is even re­motely close to the team that we are right now.”

Such a lop­sided loss in New Or­leans could have re­sulted in fin­ger-point­ing and a frac­tured locker room, Ertz suggested. In­stead, Ertz said, “It was a ral­ly­ing point for our sea­son.”

The Ea­gles sur­vived last week’s wild-card round with a 16-15 vic­tory in which quar­ter­back Nick Foles — who’s won four straight starts since tak­ing over for in­jured starter Car­son Wentz — en­gi­neered a late scor­ing drive capped by a fourth-down touch­down pass. And that only stood up af­ter Chicago kicker Cody Parkey’s “dou­ble-doink” miss on a field­goal at­tempt that hit both the up­right and cross­bar in the fi­nal sec­onds.

Philadel­phia likely will need more of­fense in the Su­per­dome, where the Saints av­er­aged 37 points in Drew Brees’ seven home starts be­fore the record­set­ting QB got a rest day dur­ing the club’s anti-cli­mac­tic reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale.

“I as­sume they’ll come in as mo­ti­vated as ever. Just like we’re go­ing to come in as mo­ti­vated as ever,” Brees said. “Just two re­ally good teams about to play in a play­off game.”

Some other story lines sur­round­ing the third Ea­gles-Saints play­off clash since Pay­ton and Brees joined forces in New Or­leans in 2006.

START­ING FAST

The Ea­gles have won 19 straight games when they score in the first quar­ter, in­clud­ing 7-0 this sea­son. They scored on a field-goal drive last week in the first quar­ter. It’ll be even more im­por­tant to score early against the high-pow­ered Saints. New Or­leans is 5-0 when lead­ing af­ter one quar­ter, 9-0 when lead­ing at half­time and won eight times by dou­ble-digit mar­gins.

“We are start­ing the games bet­ter now over the last six, seven games,” Ea­gles of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Groh said. “De­fense is do­ing a re­ally good job get­ting off the field early in the game. We’re able to get the lead.”

Coach Doug Ped­er­son has de­ferred the kick­off to the sec­ond half when­ever the Ea­gles have won the coin toss. Per­haps he’ll re­con­sider if he wins the toss this week.

RESTED SAINTS

Sev­eral prom­i­nent Saints play­ers haven’t played in more than two weeks. Brees, who com­pleted an NFL sin­gle-sea­son record 74.4 per­cent of his passes, and dy­namic run­ning back Alvin Ka­mara, who had 1,592 yards and 18 TDs from scrim­mage, were both healthy scratches in Week 17.

Mean­while, two start­ing of­fen­sive line­men who’ve been nurs­ing in­juries — left tackle Ter­ron Armstead (chest) and right guard Larry War­ford (knee) — both sat out the reg­u­larsea­son fi­nale.

“Our O-line be­ing healthy, back to pretty much 100 per­cent, guys are just ex­cited, re­ju­ve­nated and ready to play,” Ka­mara said.

Armstead has yet to con­firm he’ll be ready, but he prac­ticed this week and said with a smile, “I feel good about Sun­day.”

DUMP-OFFS

Both teams are adept at us­ing run­ning backs as re­ceivers. Ka­mara (81 catches, 709 yards) is New Or­leans’ sec­ond-lead­ing re­ceiver be­hind Michael Thomas. Mark In­gram also has been ef­fec­tive on screens for New Or­leans.

Mean­while, the Saints an­tic­i­pate the Ea­gles to look for for­mer Saints run­ning Dar­ren Spro­les, who, like Foles, did not play in the pre­vi­ous meet­ing.

“Dar­ren has got in­cred­i­bly good in­stincts on set­ting up some of these screens,” said Pay­ton, who em­ployed Spro­les sim­i­larly from 2011-13. “Quite hon­estly, we haven’t been as good this year as we have in other years in that area, but a lot of it de­pends on the op­po­nent you’re play­ing.”

Char­lie Neiber­gall / As­so­ci­ated Press

Chiefs safety Eric Mur­ray (21) ges­tures dur­ing the sec­ond half against the Colts on Satur­day.

Nick Wass / As­so­ci­ated Press

Quar­ter­back Drew Brees and the Saints host the Ea­gles on Sun­day.

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